If you haven't seen it, or all you can remember is the chicken salad scene, try to catch Film Forum's terrific-looking new print of this early-70s highlight. The restoration, which was recorded back to new 35mm after being digitally cleaned from the original, is a welcome counterpoint to William Friedkin's atrociously Blu-Ray'd The French Connection, which screened for a week at MoMA exactly a year ago (I'm still upset about it!). The oil fields, Pacific Northwest highways, and cramped but cozy trailer home interiors—as shot by László Kovács—look subtly swabbed and smooth, never better.
Jack Nicholson (at his best) plays gifted pianist Bobby Dupea, now working the Bakersfield, CA oil rigs and spending his nights bowling with his doglike-loyal girlfriend Rayette (a brilliant Karen Black) and his crass rig buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush). Though it's unclear at this point what earns it, Bobby exudes a quiet air of superiority in these rube environs. When Rayette tries to flip her Tammy Wynette record, he forbids it, since it's "a question of musical integrity." When she gets pregnant and Elton advises him to start a family like his, Bobby is outraged that his friend would compare their lives. He'd like to think so, but Bobby's not the only one with secrets—after this blow-up, some besuited Fed-types appear to bust Elton for a mysterious robbery.
Briefly a road movie, Five Easy Pieces gracefully escalates in emotion as Bobby returns to his family home on Puget Sound. At a diner on the way, the movie famously invites the audience to jeer a rule-harping waitress; she's a dubious zeitgeist whipping boy, but Carole Eastman's hilarious dialogue wins it a pass. Dave Kehr thought that the scene revealed the film's phony "proletarian chic," but that would seem to imply that Five Easy Pieces makes endorsements on either side of the class and culture divide, which it simply doesn't. Rafelson's wonderful Stay Hungry, with fancyboy Jeff Bridges slumming it amongst gauche bodybuilders and fiddlers, accomplishes a similar feat of equilibrium.
Back home, Bobby attempts reconnection with his gifted-eccentric siblings and his silent, ailing father, to whom he explains the reason for his Rabbit Angstrom-like existence: "I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay." He also seduces his brother's lover, Catherine (Susan Anspach), whose vulnerable optimism is more dignified than Bobby's defeated aimlessness. The juxtaposition exposes the lie of any accusations that Five Easy Pieces is a glorification of irresponsibility, as does the satisfyingly unsatisfying ending.
February 26-March 4 at Film Forum